Traveling for Transformation: The “Return” of IPM’s Signature In-Person Immersion Experience Programs.

Transformational Learning. Ever since IPM coined the term Immersion Experience Programs, twenty years ago, a commitment to personal transformation through Immersion has been at the center of IPM’s signature program.

I first recall hearing the term “Immersion” in the context of international, short-term travel—what others had long-called “mission trips”—from my dear friend and mentor, the late Kim McElaney, then serving as the first woman Chaplain at a Jesuit institution of higher learning, my alma mater Holy Cross (MA). It was 2002, and I was on my way back to Cleveland from two weeks in Rwanda & Kenya, when I stopped for dinner at Kim’s home outside of Boston. Kim, and her spouse Tim, were fascinated by my relatively new role with IPM (I had begun my service as Executive Director on June 1, 2001) and Kim asked if I might be open to creating an Immersion Experience for Holy Cross students in Kenya. 

By this point, I had already been in discussion with an old friend and colleague, Mark Falbo, who was then serving as the Director of the Center for Community Service Learning at John Carroll University (OH), and with whom I had travelled earlier that year to El Salvador & Nicaragua to meet with IPM’s Project Partners and friends. Mark and I had also envisioned a student trip to El Salvador but hadn’t yet used the term Immersion, but rather another “service learning” opportunity. In our planning, this travel experience was to be similar to others Mark had offered in his tenure at JCU but with IPM facilitating a deeper experience of solidarity and accompaniment among our Project Partners. In my mind, such short-term travel would be more like the Travel Seminars my Yale Divinity advisor and professor, the late Letty Russell, had been facilitating for years in conjunction with area studies in Liberation Theology. Letty was the first to allow me the opportunity to travel to Korea and Mexico while I struggled making ends meet as graduate student.

What Kim, Mark, and I may not have known, was that we were on the cutting-edge of a new approach to short-term international travel opportunities for students that were not about “mission” or “service,” let alone prostelization or work. Yes, we would travel short-term, but not “to help,” rather to be present. We would immerse ourselves in the history, culture, and day-to-day reality of IPM’s Project Partners and humbly learn that the hopes & dreams, aspiration & struggles, of IPM’s Partners were not too dissimilar from our own.  We would not travel to “fix” anything, to “convert” those we visited, or to reinforce our own sense of cultural superiority—what has become known, in the years since, as “white saviorism” regardless of the actual skin tone of the participants. Rather, we would see ourselves as pilgrims, seeking to atone for the injustice our nation & others had perpetuated upon the peoples of El Salvador, Kenya, Nicaragua, and Rwanda, while nurturing bonds of friendship rooted in trust. 

In the two decades since, IPM has facilitated at least 254 in-person Immersions, in more than twelve countries, with more than 2,300 participants. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, we have also facilitated 7 Virtual Immersions with 66 participants to date. As we enter the 2022-2023 school year—and with assurances from our Partners that we will not possibly jeopardize their health by sojourning among them—we look forward to the return of in-person Immersion Experiences, with twelve already in development. In our continuing efforts to be as inclusive as possible, IPM will continue to offer Virtual Immersions for those unable to travel internationally with a focus on thematic experiences like our popular Caste, Environmental Justice, and Gender Equity programs. Personally, I look forward to also offering long-time friends of IPM the opportunity to join me once again on what we traditionally refer to as “Tag-Along” Immersions. These occasional programs allow a handful of people to travel with my colleagues & I as we work internationally among our Regional Partners & Staff, experiencing our mission & programs side-by-side. 

IPM’s creation of and unique approach to Immersion has been copied by many others since those first in-person Immersion Experiences in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Kenya in 2002-2003. I can attest from my Doctoral work at Eden Theological Seminary (completed in 2011), and personal experience, that no one does it quite as well in a multi-faith & multi-national context. IPM Immersion Experiences may not work for everyone, and that is OK. They aren’t conceived to meet service “requirements” though many academic institutions do incorporate IPM Immersion Experiences as part of a for-credit class, campus ministry program, and/or service offering. They aren’t mission trips to proselytize or experience something solely among people of the same religious faith but are always an appropriate avenue to live out one’s personal sense of vocation in a deeply spiritual way. 

Perhaps most uniquely still, IPM’s Immersion Experiences are coordinated and led by local Staff & Partners on their terms, their schedule, and to their benefit. There is nothing “to do.” IPM’s focus is on “being”… being present, being attentive, being willing to look deeply inside ourselves, being open to owning up to our complicity in the injustice that stalks our world, being ready to become the change we seek. That, if you will, is the service—a service that comes from being willing to journey not solely to another place but into our deepest selves.

Immersion Experiences are, first & foremost, about personal transformation. Transformational learning that can only come from stepping outside ourselves & moving beyond our presuppositions of how we might “help.” Ultimately, Immersions Experiences are about looking as deeply as we can within ourselves to reimagine and reshape our role in the world. 

I would be thrilled to talk with you more about how you and/or your academic institution (corporation, faith community, nonprofit, and alike) might plan and participate in an IPM Immersion Experience. I hope you will reach out and look forward to being immersed with you for the first time or once again. If IPM & I can guarantee you anything, you will be transformed! 

Peace, Joe  

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